Program 32: Animation

Before movies (motion pictures) came into existence, did people entertain themselves with moving pictures in any way? Absolutely! For centuries, men and women have been fascinated with optical illusions and “animated” images. This fascination was particularly obvious in the 1800’s when a string of optical illusion inventions had enormous popularity. In fact, it was these inventions that eventually led to the successful creation of modern movies. The goal of this SEC program was to walk our scientists through the history of animation, to showcase a variety of models of optical illusion toys/devices in a touch & learn lab, and to create some animation magic of our own!

Do you see a duck…or a bunny?

To get ourselves in the right frame of mind, I showed our SEC scientists a series of optical illusion images and asked them to share what they saw. Some of the images could be interpreted in 2 ways; some of the images played with perspective and made objects of a similar size seem larger or smaller than each other; and some images just seemed impossible (like the elephant with an endless number of legs!). What do you see in the image to the right? The image below is a fun optical illusion print by Currier and Ives that Mark Twain himself proudly hung in his home – you can still see it on display if you visit his home in Hartford, CT!

“Blossom and Decay” by Currier and Ives

Long before we had modern movies, human beings played with optical illusions and ways to animate images in a variety of ways. And our SEC scientists got a chance to see many of them in action (and to create some of their very own!). Several of the popular optical illustion/motion toys that led to the creation of modern movies are as follows:

  • Thaumatrope (1824)
  • Phenakistoscope (1833)
  • Zoetrope (1834)
  • Praxinoscope (1877)
  • Special Feature: The Flip Book

FLIP BOOKS…Earliest Animation?


Flip Books

No one is sure exactly when flip books came about. Many presume that they have been around as long as the earliest optical illusion toys/devices in the early 1800’s. Regardless of the historic timeline, they are clearly a fun and simple way to design your own animated sequences. This also makes for a terrific and simple animation project for our scientists. There are many templates online – I used a template for a simple man in motion and a shark moving through the water – but you can also design your own. You can also staple your flip book to hold it together, or use something as simple as a clip. Links to templates for the ones we created together in this program are below.

Shark Flip Book Template

Running Man Flip Book Template


The Thaumatrope (“Turning Marvel” or “Wonder Turner”) gained popularity in Victorian London when it was presented at the Royal College of Physicians to represent the “persistence of vision.” The persistence of vision is a scientific principle which notes that the human eye retains memory of an image for 1/20 of a second past when an image has already left our field of vision. This persistence of vision helps make many optical illusions possible since the human eye actually imperceptibly blurs together a series of still images and tricks the human brain into thinking separate images are actually part of the same larger image.



  • Drinking straws (bendy or straight straws – it doesn’t make a difference) OR string/yarn
  • Hole punch or scissors
  • Clear tape OR glue stick
  • Print-outs of sample thaumatropes (you can also design your own using a pair of blank circles)

Spider Thaumatrope Template

Series of 3 Thaumatropes: Cat, Diamond, and Gem

Our SEC scientists used a variety of templates for thaumatropes that I found online. I encouraged them to use different methods of putting them together. The traditional way is to glue together two discs so that there is an image on each side of your disc. Then create holes on either side of the disc, tie a piece of string or yarn through each hole, and twirl the string so that the disc flips back and forth. A modern way to put it together is to glue the two circular images together with a straw inbetween, and then you can just rub the straw back and forth between your two hands to help the images flip and merge. Below is a video by ABC Mouse showing how they recommend designing your own thaumatrope…


The thaumatrope eventually evolved into the phenakistoscope. The phenakistoscope is a disc mounted on an axis that when spun gives the impression of a scene in motion. In order for the illusion to work, the viewer needs to face the image towards a mirror. When it is spun, the viewer looks through the slits along the edges toward the images reflected in the mirror. Discs/wheels with different images could be placed on the axis to give the viewer a chance to see different types of action. The phenakistoscope was a step up from the thaumatrope because of the number of images that could be used together to create the impression of motion. The thaumatrope can only use two images, which extremely limits the optical illusion motion; the phenakistoscope can make use of a series of images to present a larger range of motion. Check out the youtube video below to see some phenakistoscope discs in motion…

Phenakistoscope being viewed in mirror


Historic Zoetrope

The Zoetrope produces the illusion of motion by displaying a sequence of drawings or photographs showing progressive phases of that motion; it was basically a cylindrical variation of the phenakistoscope. The zoetrope’s great improvement over the phenakistoscope was that multiple people could view the illusion of animation at the same time (the phenakistoscope was limited to one person because of the way it needed to be viewed through slits in a mirror). Disney Pixar was inspired by Studio Ghibli’s example and took the idea of the zoetrope to new levels by creating a 3D model of a zoetrope using popular characters from Toy Story movies. The youtube video below is a really amazing look at how many animated movies are made!



  • Foil pie plate
  • Black cardstock or construction paper
  • Printed zoetrope image template from online (or create your own!)
  • Pencil or milkshake straw
  • Your choice of additional materials for stability (I added a used CD and a paper cup to keep the plate from wobbling when you spin)

I actually sent this project home with my scientists. It’s a relatively simple object to construct, but you may need to do a lot of fine-tuning to get it working the way you want. I was inspired by the Share It! Science blog’s project page. Below is an image of my instruction sheet that I sent home with the SEC scientists. I actually created an image strip for our crew based on one that came with a zoetrope I bought for myself as a demonstration model.


Historic Praxinoscope

The praxinoscope is the pre-cursor to modern movies! With this device, for every image on the wheel/disc, there needs to be a matching mirror in the center. When the device is spun, thanks to the persistence of vision and how our brain interprets the spinning images, it appears that an object is in motion. Rather than viewing the images through slits, the person looks directly at a central column of mirros to see the art in motion.


Where modern movies improve leaps and bounds above the other optical illusion devices is the number of images that can be used. Even the praxinoscope is limited in the number of images it is possible to string together to create motion. With modern movies, still images are captured with special cameras onto film reels. When they are played back, it appears that there is continuous action from people, items, and events. In the past few decades, there has been more frequent use of digital filming (which operates in an entirely different way than traditional movies in how it captures motion). But even today, most movies you see in the theater are made up of a series of still images that are rapidly played back to give viewers the illusion of motion!

Stop Motion by CATEATER, LLC

I set up a station for our scientists where they could try creating a little stop motion animation using some random LEGO(R) bricks and tiny figures from my work desk. We used the free version of the Stop Motion app for iPhone/iPad by CATEATER, LLC. I like this app because it is very easy to use and very straightforward. [You can also pay for a verson of the same app with advanced features.] Before they got started, I showed them the sample video I had created (keep your eye on the monkey!)…